What next for GDS?

Digital government has lost momentum, according to MPs. As the Government Digital Service enters its “third era”, what will it do to regain its authority and deliver real change?

A black-clad technician creeps onto the darkened stage, plugs the speaker cable into the laptop on the lectern, and slinks off again into the wings. Technology, eh?

Not the most auspicious start for the new director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS), Alison Pritchard, you might think. It turns out, however, she writes comedy as a hobby – and what better prompt for a gag could she have?

Digital government followers, meanwhile, could hardly have a better metaphor – a big promise, followed by disappointment, and then a fresh start. So after all that, what does the future hold for GDS?

Expectations are as high as they have been since GDS was set up in 2011, with a brief to make government “digital by default”. The organisation now employs over 800 people – more than some Whitehall departments. In the 2015 spending review, GDS was given a budget of £450m to the end of the 2019/2020 financial year, with expectations that it would deliver at least £3.5bn in savings.

But in July this year, a report from MPs on the House of Commons science and technology committee concluded that GDS was losing authority and the ability to deliver digital change, leading to a slowing of digital momentum across Whitehall. “It is clear that the current digital service offered by the government has lost momentum and is not transforming the citizen-state relationship as it could,” said committee chairman Norman Lamb.

However, in his speech last week at Sprint 19, GDS’s annual conference, Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said the digital transformation of government “remains one of my top priorities”. Clearly, it’s down to GDS to prove the science and technology committee wrong.

The third era

Pritchard told the audience at Sprint 19 that the organisation has now entered its “third era” – a distinction that conforms to the transitions in leadership over the past four years.

The first era, according to Pritchard, saw GDS as a digital disruptor, trying to shake up attitudes and approaches to technology across government – a period led by the first director of GDS, Mike Bracken, and his shortlived successor Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

In its second phase, GDS focused on building what is now known as the digital, data and technology (DDaT) profession across government, and developing the digital capabilities of civil service staff, primarily through the GDS Academy, established by the then director general of GDS, Kevin Cunnington. It was during this period that the drift in purpose and authority claimed by the science and technology committee took place.

Now, the third era, led for now by Pritchard (her role is currently an interim appointment), is about establishing digital as a function across Whitehall, and “operationalising that capability”. To that end, civil service CEO John Manzoni has also decided to create a new job, of government chief digital and information officer (CDIO), to oversee both the work of GDS and digital development across Whitehall. For the first time, digital will be led by someone with the authority and seniority of a permanent secretary.

“That journey of disruptor, through to profession, through to function, is a reflection that at scale and at pace, you will see us operate at a level that crosses boundaries, and across departments,” said Pritchard.

“Many of the challenges we faced have been in the way that government works and functions. Bringing in a government CDIO will help that function at a significantly senior level.”